How Syd Bennett launched an R&B career with old MacBooks and a microphone

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Venla Shalin/Getty Images

There are many unfair generalizations made about millennials, but here’s one that’s immutably true: We all grew up stealing music — or at least looking the other way. For the 30 and younger crew, the now-defunct Limewire was our record store, YouTube was our jukebox, and iPods were our record collections. Many of us turned the spoils of our music piracy into mixes on blank CDs. Syd Bennett, 25-year-old lead singer of breakout R&B group The Internet, turned her pirated library into a Grammy nomination.

The Internet was formed after its founding members discovered each other in typical millennial fashion — Bennett found producer Matt Martians on iconoclastic rapper Tyler, the Creator‘s Top 8 friends list on Myspace in 2007. As members of Odd Future, Tyler’s collective of young creatives that counts Frank Ocean as a member, the pair began working together by making spacey, lo-fi tunes in bedrooms and living rooms “on a couple shitty old MacBooks,” Bennett said.

“Almost everything I’ve ever recorded I recorded myself at the desk, in my house.”

The duo released their first album as The Internet, Purple Naked Ladies, in 2011. Five years later, the group expanded into a full-fledged band with new members, and garnered a Best Contemporary Album nomination at the Grammys in 2016 for their third album, Ego Death. Bennett turned crappy laptops, outdated social media platforms, and bedroom studios into a music career.

Before she finished up her first-ever solo tour in December, and after she tore down the Trocadero Theateras in Philadelphia as part of Red Bull Sound Select Presents – 3 Days In Philly, Bennett emailed with Digital Trends to discuss making great music on cheap equipment, how one of the most famous music piracy programs helped start her career, and what you need to build your own home studio.

Digital Trends: You have been recording yourself and making music with a Macbook since you were 14. What are some things you did back then that you wouldn’t even think of doing now?

Bennett: On one of my first beats, I recorded myself and [a friend] eating chips and we sampled it. And I used to find acapellas on Limewire and make remixes. Haven’t done that in a while.

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What was the recording process like for the three Internet albums that have come out and the upcoming new one, in terms of what equipment is used and where recording takes place?

[Purple Naked Ladies was] recorded mostly in Matt’s first apartment in LA on a couple shitty old Macbooks, probably with an Audio Technica 2035 and a cheap M-Audio preamp, I think.The rest was done in our apartment in Marina Del Rey, California, on, I think, an AKG c414 mic and an Avalon M5 preamp.

I learned everything I knew about recording and engineering from my experience with Odd Future.

[For The Internet’s second album, Feel Good, we] recorded a few of these tracks at Mac Miller’s old house in North Hollywood, and the rest was probably done in a studio I was leasing in Hollywood at the time. I had a [Neumann] U87 mic and an Avalon 737 [preamp] at the time, plus a [Neumann] TLM49 mic. Started the production for [Ego Death] at my Hollywood studio and recorded most of it in my parents’ basement on that same TLM49 and M5.

According to bandmate Matt Martians in a 2011 Spin interview, the first Internet album was recorded in two different houses at two different points in your careers. One when you were broke and one when you had a little money. What DIY hacks did you two use to record and mix music when you were first recording the Internet albums, before the money came in?

I learned everything I knew about recording and engineering from my experience with Odd Future, so I was pretty comfortable with not having much. There are no hacks. You just get the best recording you can, and play around with the mix in the box. Gotta have fun with it.

Creatives are often creatures of habit and will sometimes choose what they prefer over what they know is technically better. Are there any preferences you have that might be cheaper [and more comfortable for you] than more expensive alternatives?

I record myself, so I’m not a fan of [vocal] booths. Almost everything I’ve ever recorded, I recorded myself at the desk, in my house. Booths are technically “better,” but if you can keep the room quiet enough, and you’re not in a room with terrible acoustics, it’s fine. Sometimes sounds even better if you ask me. Sometimes the room’s natural reverb is dope.

Syd Bennett
Gender Amplified
Gender Amplified

I bought a 4-by-4 vocal booth like five years ago and it’s only been used a couple times. Recorded Ego Death background vocals in there, and Kehlani recorded an idea in there years ago. That’s it.

You are a student of music and have been featured on some big collaborations recently. Does anyone you’ve been in the studio with have a recording setup and process that is particularly noteworthy and interesting to you?

No. For the most part, everyone’s process is the same. The engineers might set up their sessions differently, but everyone’s still in these big old studios with the industry standard equipment. It’s fine. I always end up asking them to set up a mic at the desk for me anyway.

You said previously that you’re working on the newest Internet album in the first studio where the old Odd Future projects were made. What was that like?

Well, we haven’t started working up there yet. It’s the guesthouse at my parents’ property, where I still live. Our last tenant just moved out, and before that I had two-to-three different recording rooms set up in the house.

It had gotten overwhelming having all my equipment in different places, so they let me have the guesthouse again.It’s a lot different now because I have accumulated a lot of equipment over the years. Back in high school, I didn’t have much of anything, but that was probably for the best, and it was a dope hangout. I’m excited to finish this solo tour and get all the guys up in the guesthouse to finish the album. So many memories up there.

You have been running your own studio for years and helped build it. What are some tips or products you’d recommend people have if they wanted to build their own DIY home studio?

All you really need is a good mic, an OK mic, a great preamp, and a clean interface. Throw some bass traps around the room (corners first) and see how it sounds.

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Don’t overthink it and don’t let technicalities stop you from creating. For me, it will always be a work in progress.

You did a behind-the-scenes video of the creation of your song Smile More in virtual reality for the New York Times. Do you have any future plans of working with VR?

No. To be honest, that process was entirely too much for me. Maybe in a few years, when it’s easier to create, I’ll reconsider.

What is a device you wish existed that would make your job making music a lot easier?

It can’t get much easier.

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